Brown stew chicken is a rich and silky Jamaican stew. Of course, stew chicken is not specific to any one Caribbean island, and while different islands may have recipes that appear similar, there are subtle but important differences. For example, a Trinidadian version might be very similar to the recipe I'm sharing today, but Trinidad’s distinctive green seasoning would be added to the base, while Haitian poule en sauce would omit browning sauce or sugar and put more emphasis on the tomatoes and peppers. In Jamaica, what defines brown stew chicken is that the chicken is seared in oil and then braised in a brown gravy with sweet bell peppers and a kick of Scotch bonnet, although the specific recipe can vary from kitchen to kitchen.
Browning, a Jamaican kitchen pantry staple, is a sauce made from caramelized sugar, heated until the sugar liquifies, smokes, sputters, and nearly blackens. Home cooks will often make it from scratch as a preliminary step to recipes like this stew chicken, leaving it in the pan so they can sear the chicken directly in it, or it's made in advance, bottled, and stored. By the time the sugar is charred to the appropriate color, it’s no longer an overtly sweet ingredient; it can be a bit smoky, nearly bitter, and, when made with dark brown sugar, it may have a hint of molasses. Spices are sometimes added, but since browning has both sweet and savory applications, I steer clear of additions.
I used the bottled version of browning in this recipe because it's more convenient—you don’t have to dirty a pot and burn sugar, thin it, and cool it just to add a tablespoon to your marinade. The process, like making a good roux, can take a practiced hand, and the residual sweetness can vary based on how dark it gets; if you burn it, it becomes too bitter to use. However, that tablespoon is crucial, so don't omit it: It helps the chicken take on a caramel color when it's seared, which then gently seeps from the chicken into the gravy to produce a beautiful dark copper color. If you add a little more browning to the base of the stew, the gravy's hue deepens to a lush mahogany.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Caribbean kitchen that doesn't rinse their chicken, using both water and lime or vinegar. I'm not going to ask you to spray down your chicken, as that's discouraged by the CDC, but I want to note that this is a common practice, one that's been etched into the muscle memory of many, many cooks, part of the generational transfer of culinary knowledge and recipes. Cleaning the meat in this way serves a purpose beyond eliminating harmful bacteria; it also allows the cook to finish plucking feathers and wiping away lingering bone fragments. Once the chicken is rinsed clean, lime juice or vinegar is used again in the marinade itself for acidity and flavor, and that's where I start with this recipe, with an acidic marinade.
Traditionally Jamaican recipes have long overnight marinades with all but a few ingredients for the final stew covering the chicken. Everything is then scrapped off of the chicken the following day before it's cooked and all the vegetables are reunited shortly after when any liquid from the marinade is returned to the now-seared chicken. I find that a shorter marinade yields the same results, and I omit many of the vegetables in the final stew from the marinade, as sautéing the vegetables in the searing oil helps to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Once the vegetables and aromatics are bloomed in the oil, I then blend in the reserved marinating liquid.
Brown stew, like other chicken stews in Jamaica, starts with a whole chicken cut up. If you’re not partial to eating chicken wings that are slathered in sticky gravy (although, if not...why not?) you can reserve them for another purpose, like a chicken stock, or you can substitute the whole chicken with all legs and thighs. When stewing a whole chicken, the breast meat can get sad and dry if it's left to cook along with the bone-in dark meat for the entire time, so instead I call for adding the breast meat to the pot in the last 25 minutes of cooking.
Using a heavy knife, cut the chicken into 8 pieces. Cut each bone-in breast in thirds crosswise to yield 3 pieces, to make 12 pieces of chicken in total. Remove chicken skin only if desired.
In a large bowl, stir together lime juice, 1 tablespoon (15ml) browning, dark soy sauce, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. Add chicken and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 and up to 8 hours.
In a Dutch oven or large sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, add chicken and cook, turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter, and reserve marinade.
Add onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes to the pot and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom to release any browned bits, until vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes.
Add scallions, garlic, and thyme and cook, stirring, until garlic and scallions are softened but not browned, about 1 minute. Stir in cornstarch and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add 2 cups (475ml) water along with the reserved marinade, sugar, Scotch bonnet, allspice, and the remaining 1 tablespoon (15ml) browning. Nestle the chicken drumsticks, thighs, and wings into the braising liquid, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 40 minutes.
Nestle the reserved chicken breasts into the stew, then simmer until chicken breasts register 155°F (70°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 20 minutes. Check the consistency of the liquid: While called "gravy," the cooking liquid should not be thick like a roux-based gravy. It should have more body than water but should still be quite liquid and not coat the back of a spoon; if it's too thick, add additional water, ¼ cup (60ml) at a time until a rich and glossy but otherwise fluid sauce forms.
Stir in ketchup, then simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes longer. Serve with white rice, rice and peas, and/or cooked cabbage.
You can adjust the spicy intensity of the Scotch bonnet by either leaving it whole (mild heat), cut and deseeded (medium heat), cut open with seeds (hot).